Healthcare institutions are increasingly taking an interest in supporting surrounding communities in proactive ways beyond just providing traditional clinical services. Some maintain community gardens, others offer onsite and mobile health, wellness and nutrition education sessions or donate excess meal production to local shelters.
St. James Hospital in Butte, Mont., has traveled a slightly different path. It produces hot meals intended to be served at the nearby Community Café, a pay-what-you-can eatery operated by a local social service organization called Heart of Butte to assist the estimated 23 percent of the local population who are deemed to be food insecure.
Last year, St. James donated 13,187 meals and 437 staff hours to the café, a community benefit contribution valued at $102,766.
Heart of Butte was formed last year by a coalition of representatives from various local public and private entities—including St. James Healthcare—to fill the void following the shuttering in spring 2017 of the Butte Rescue Mission. The new organization then sought the assistance of the hospital, and specifically that of its nutrition services department under Manager J.C. McPherson, to provide food for community members experiencing homelessness and food insecurity.
At first, McPherson and his team only provided bag lunches and other food supplies, but after securing volunteers and new locations to support the foodservice program, they were able to start supplying and delivering a hot meal to be served by volunteers to needy individuals at the new Community Café, a venue made possible by a partnership with an Uptown Butte property owner.
The initiative guarantees at least one hot meal every day to those in need. It is prepared during the day and sent over from the hospital in the afternoon for serving in the evening.
Meanwhile, the café serves its own menu during the day to street traffic, which consists of both food-insecure individuals and regular commercial lunch crowds. The menu consists primarily of hot and cold sandwiches, salads and a soup/chili of the day, plus a drink and cookie to form a combo with the entrée and side.
Pricing is voluntary, with a suggested donation of $10 for a combo, $8 for salads and $2 for sides, but customers can pay what they choose. The revenues from these sales help support the café, which is staffed mostly by volunteers, including diners who choose to pay for their meals by donating their labor.
“With the pay-what-you-can pricing, community cafés make healthy food available to people who couldn’t afford to eat at a regular restaurant,” explains Heart of Butte on its website. “No matter how little money you have, you can always find a meal at a community café. Unlike soup kitchens, which simply give away food to the poor, community cafés give people a chance to work in exchange for a meal, so they don’t feel like they’re taking charity. As a bonus, they get a chance to learn kitchen skills that can help them if they ever want to seek work in a restaurant.”